For the second time this hockey season, we saw Poland’s women’s U18 team compete at an IIHF event. This was a much different group from the one we saw in September. The U18 squad lost some stars and legends of the program, like Anna Kot, Alicja Mota, and Julia Zielinska. That team we saw in September took home silver and felt like they were inches from gold. For Poland to replicate or improve on their success, they would need more jumps by the new core or some amazing debuts. Would they get either in this five-team tournament?
Poland started off the tournament with a match against familiar foe South Korea. Poland immediately proved why they should be a tournament favorite with a 6-0 victory, including two goals from Stepien. This was the first sign of the new offensive leaders stepping up in big ways. In their second game, Poland got their biggest test with Denmark. After a rough second period, Poland would fall in this one 3-1. The tournament’s story was Danish goalie Caroline Bjergstad, who stopped 90 shots of the 93 she faced. This included a 36-save game against Poland. With Poland likely eliminated from the tournament, it could have been easy for them to give up. Instead, they kept their foot on the gas and would win their final games against Spain and Chinese Taipei, both 4-0. This would give Poland a second straight silver medal, but this time with 10 more goals scored and five fewer allowed.
Nadia Ratajczyk had a solid showing at the last tournament, but there was room for improvement. There is not much more to improve on when you post three shutouts in four games! It was a great performance for the young goalie. Now in the three shutouts, she only faced 36 shots, including only seven vs. South Korea. Still, often times we see goalies let in a soft one during low-shot-faced games in IIHF tournaments, but Ratajczyk stayed sharp the whole time. It was a great tournament for Poland’s top goaltending prospect, who finished with a .949 SV%.
In the previous tournament, Poland had many chances but could not finish. They finished with a shooting percentage below four percent. It was the biggest reason Poland missed out on gold, and lost a rough game vs Chinese Taipei in 2022. This year Poland came out strong and buried their opponents below them, with final scores of 6-0 and 4-0 twice. This game gave them an 8.25 shooting percentage on 177 shots. This was good for second in the tournament, but there is still some work to do. When it mattered most, Poland only scored one goal on 37 shots versus Denmark.
A sign that work has already started was a pair of 14 years olds who came up big for Poland. Anna Sencerz and Matylda Stępień both stepped up and helped deliver strong performances to boost Poland’s offense. Matylda Stępień is someone I was hoping would provide that spark, as she scored over 40 points last year for Ponzan in the PLHK. In 2023, she is playing in the top women’s league in Czechia for HC Falcons Sokol Karviná. In the tournament, she scored three goals on 19 shots. Her three goals were tied for the lead on team Poland and third in the tournament. Sencerz has been a rapidly developing forward for Gdansk. In this tournament, she scored one goal and assisted on another. Her two points were tied for fifth on the team. Both young players helped make this Polish offense the strongest in the tournament.
The Captain and Brzezińska Bombs
The true leaders of that strong offense were Maja Brzezinska and Justyna Zyla. Brzezinska tied for the lead in points and goals on Poland with three goals and one helper. The talented forward from Gdansk also fired off a team-leading 27 shots on goal. This was the highest amount of shots on goals by any individual in the tournament. Brzezinska already represents Poland at the senior level in the IIHF as well. She showed in this tournament that she has already outgrown the U18 level, and I think she may outgrow playing in Poland soon. While the captain has already outgrown Poland and is playing in Sweden. Justyna Żyła, the captain, also had a really great tournament. She tied Brzezinska for the lead in points with two goals and two assists for four points. Both are really going to be a large part of the core of Poland’s next generation.
What’s Next Now?
After back-to-back silver medals, the obvious goal for next year will be gold. Poland will not have too many departures, but they will be key players. Starting goalie Nadia Ratajczyk will have aged out after two runs as the starter. Captain Justyna Żyła, Maja Brzezińska, Julia Skręt, and Natalia Nosal will also all not be able to return. Still, that means you return so much of your roster that it paints a bright picture for next year. Finding out who will be the next goalie to take on the starter role will be the biggest thing for Poland to answer. The offense could be the best we have ever seen from the red and white.
- Poland’s 15 goals scored were the second most in team history, impressive with only four games
- 3 goals is the least amount of goals allowed in the tournament by Poland, still impressive but also only with four games.
- Natalia Nosal has now had two strong tournaments showing poise in each zone. She recorded one goal and two assists in four games in this tournament. I really like to see development on defense.
- Patrycja Wójcik has a lot of potential as a stay-at-home defenseman and her development continues to grow solidly.
- Magdalena Lapies is really going to be a special forward for Poland. There was so much talent at this tournament to talk about.
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